Sunday, November 26, 2006



Cubism, Kafka and the Castle
Prague’s New Museum Scene

Who knew that Prague, tourist trap of central Europe, would continue to build its infrastructure and develop several new concept museums in the last few years? When I visited in summer 2003, packed between hordes of other Americans and several thousands Italians swarming over the Charles Bridge and trying to have an “authentic” pivo [beer] break on the Old Town Square, I had no idea that the innate charm of the old and picturesque was about to be updated. On this last visit, I was pleasantly surprised.

Down the street from the Powder Tower entrance to Old Town is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the so-named House of the Black Madonna, where the Lady stands in a small golden cage protruding from the third floor. This is a Cubist building; after taking college seminars about Cubism’s keywords of Picasso, Braque, Krauss, semiotics, and African masks, I still didn’t know there was a such thing as Cubist architecture. There is—it was enthusiastically developed by the Czech Cubist school into a theory of dynamism of form that was brought not just to the canvas but also to the drawing board and even the workshop; furniture and applied design are also on display in this museum, which opened in late 2003. As a bonus, the fantastic Grand Café Orient on the second floor of the House of the Black Madonna is furnished from curtains to floorboards with visually indulgent Czech Cubist flourishes. From their extensive menu I recommend trying the local Frankovka wine, a mild, fruity red.

Across the Charles Bridge is the newly opened exhibit The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague, which only arrived in the eponymous city in 2005 after touring other world cities such as Barcelona and New York first. Rather than present a series of mummified artifacts in chronological order, the typical approach of museums dedicated to a single great figure’s life, the space seeks to conjure up the “existential topography” of Kafka—that is, the bundle of childhood and adolescent anxieties that brewed within him during his residence in Prague and led him to create masterpiece literature. This is created by the manipulation of film, projection, photography, and strangely-shaped rooms, as well as a soundtrack of Poe-like Romantic “horror” noises such as water dripping in an echo chamber and crows cawing. “Let this space talk. Let the sound guide you,” the exhibit introduction explains. While the curator’s insistence upon drumming up a sense of Freudian childhood anxieties may grate in these forced instances, the exhibit is by and large fascinating and the psychological template it provides for approaching Kafka’s life is as interesting as the almost-pretentious premise promises. Minor inaccuracies, such as a mistranslation of the word shiksa into fiancée, or wrongly cited pages from his German diary, cannot hide the curator’s obvious sympathy for Kafka’s internal mental struggle and the masterpieces it produced, or outshine the superbly-worded wall text explaining different aspects of his development.

Finally, rag-tag Prague Castle up above the city has its own new museum. “Castle” misleadingly suggests one structure, whereas the complex actually contains structures developed and enlarged over the last thousand years, from Romanesque St. George’s Chapel to the Renaissance Royal Rooms to the only-recently-completed Gothic cathedral. In fact, although the Cathedral dominates the maze of courtyards both in size and number of tourists, it actually plays a relatively unimportant role in the history of the site. With such confusing topography, “The Story of Prague Castle” exhibit, opened in the Old Royal Palace Building late 2003, is long overdue. The well-designed series of halls explains the different eras and rulers the space has seen while providing diagrams detailing its physical development. It also provides plenty of objects from different eras to help visitors imagine the changes, before they go on and try to decide which combination entry tickets to purchase for the warren of chapels, residences, and other attractions. That the municipal cultural authorities have become rather trigger-happy with their ticketing for the complex is yet another reason to visit the Story of Prague Castle museum and find out what exactly one is paying for at each doorway.

Images courtesy: http://malone.ba.ttu.edu/personal_pics.htm, www.prague-info.cz

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